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Friday, December 2nd, 2022

Increase in canine explosives detection training seen needed amid rise in passenger travel

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Air passenger travel is steadily increasing, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and with an influx of passengers comes the need for more highly trained canines to protect the public and support law enforcement, experts say.

The FAA reports in an aerospace forecast that passenger travel between the United States and the rest of the world increased by 5.3 percent in 2016, is expected to increase by 4.7 percent in 2017, and will continue to grow through the next 20 years.

While this growth is good for business, it also increases homeland security concerns. Trained canines play a crucial role in providing security, such as explosives or narcotics detection, at U.S. transportation hubs, law enforcement officials and lawmakers say.

A recent House Oversight and Government Reform Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee hearing examined whether there was a sufficient supply of trained domestic canines, as well as the implications of using foreign-bred dogs.

Trained dogs are seen playing a key role in the nation’s national security efforts.

They’re not only effective, but an essential component, according to L. Paul Waggoner, co-director of the Canine Performance Sciences Program, and adjunct associate professor in the departments of Anatomy, Physiology, and Pharmacology in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Alabama.

“From a technological perspective, it is widely recognized that the detector dogs represent the most capable tool for the real-time, mobile detection of explosives and many other substances,” Waggoner told Homeland Preparedness News. “It is my perspective that detector dogs are a critical component of national security – and they also provide a very visible and proven deterrent to terrorist activities.”

This doesn’t mean that detector dogs are the only security efforts needed at an airport. However, he explains, “In security sectors, like aviation transportation, that are very high-impact targets, a layered intelligence-driven approach to security is required for hardening those targets involving varied technologies applied where they are most effective for the circumstances.”

Does an increase in air travel necessitate an increase in trained canines?

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, believes it does.

“The aviation sector will continue to compete with the militaries, transit systems and police forces around the world for a finite supply of dogs suited for explosives detection work,” Rogers said in an interview with Homeland Preparedness News. “Continued ISIS-inspired attacks at home and abroad have driven demand through the roof and there is little sign that these attacks on soft targets will stop any time soon.” Rogers adds, “I’m proud Alabama companies and researchers are at the cutting edge of canine detection.”

With or without an increase in passenger volume, Waggoner believes the country needs to step up its training efforts. “I believe there is an immediate need for increasing the numbers of highly capable detector dogs for the protection of all modes of mass transit, therefore the need for highly capable dogs trained for ever-increasing, technically sophisticated applications for their use will certainly increase with increasing passenger volume.”

But increasing the number of trained dogs is only part of the problem. Waggoner said the degree of effectiveness is the result of several contributing factors. “It is dependent upon the inherent qualities of the dog to perform detection work, quality and mission-suitability of its training, performance of its handler, appropriate maintenance of its detection performance, and suitability of how the detector dog is employed in the particular security setting.”

Rogers doesn’t think the current domestic breeding program is effective. According to subcommittee testimony by Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations for the American Kennel Club (AKC), anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent of dogs that are purchased by Homeland Security and the Department of Defense are either directly or indirectly purchased from foreign vendors, usually in European countries.

However, according to Goffe’s testimony, an increase in global terrorism means that the best dogs are often kept in Europe or sold to other countries that are willing to pay more. Aside from issues with quality, there are questions about breeding, and concerns that disruptions in other parts of the world could negatively impact the supply of canines.

“The federal government has shuttered much of its domestic breeding capacity and private breeders have little economic incentive to deal with the costly and time consuming government procurement process,” Rogers explained. “I have been very encouraged by the AKCs work to bring together academics and government experts to discuss ways to increase domestic breeding and provide tools that will let American sporting dog breeders engage with the federal procurement process, and I look forward to working with them and introducing legislation if necessary.”

To protect our national security, Rogers says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must come into the 21st century regarding training and evaluation. “In the coming year, I will be pushing TSA to make an investment in their canine training to include the latest scientific research and new tools to monitor the health, stress and drive of their canine partners.”

He admits that some trainers may be resistant to change, but says, “These new, more data-driven methods will reduce waste, ease procurement, and provide valuable insights for government and canine vendors.”
Rogers warns of the consequences of resisting change. “If TSA cannot step up in these areas, they will burn bridges with domestic private sector canine companies that are essential to our security needs and become even more beholden to unaccountable overseas vendors,” he said.

Currently, the United States can purchase a 14-month-old dog from overseas for approximately $6,000 (although that amount does not include screening, training, etc.), but there is no way to confirm the dog’s age or health. The cost to produce an American-bred dog at 14 months that is ready for training is $36,000, according to testimony from Cynthia Otto, executive director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

However, Rogers says the benefits of a domestic program far outweigh the costs. “A properly trained and handled canine is more capable, more flexible and more mobile than any mechanical explosives detection screening device used by DHS.” He adds, “Properly trained canines avoid many of the privacy issues created by body scanners and other sensor systems.”

With so much at stake, Rogers says cooperation is essential. “I believe that TSA has a duty to work with academia and industry to employ the latest sound veterinary science and make its procurement process accessible to American canine breeders.”

Waggoner agrees that the cost of training those dogs must be weighed against the benefit to national security that they provide. However, Waggoner concludes, “I believe that the cost of using very capable dogs paired with very capable handlers is miniscule in relation to the total investment in security technologies especially when put in the context of the amazing detection capabilities of dogs.”